Game Three Observations; When Will The Sleeping Giants Wake

When teams have a two goal lead, the announcers like to bring up the old adage that this is the hardest lead in hockey to hang on to.

They might have a point.

In three games between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Columbus Blue Jackets, the team with the two goal lead in the game has gone on to lose said game by a score of 4-3. Pittsburgh was victorious in games one and three, Columbus won game two.

For the first time in this series the special teams were not special. There was not a single power play or shorthanded goal scored in this game despite ten combined power play chances.

Here are a few observations so far from this series.

Standouts (average ice time is not adjusted from the overtime game in game 2)

Once again Brandon Dubinsky has been a key player for the Columbus Blue Jackets. Identified early on as an x-factor, Dubinsky has been a strong presence in Columbus’ defensive game, but has had a strong offensive presence as well. His 4 assists lead the Blue Jackets, his 12 shots are a team high, and his 21:01average time on ice leads all Columbus forwards.  

Jack Johnson has been a revelation for the Blue Jackets in this series. In my preview I chose to highlight the smaller James Wizniewski as the defenseman to watch. I thought Johnson’s lack of speed and overly physical nature was going to force him into uncomfortable situations and poor penalties.

Johnson, however, has been anything but slow.

His timing in the offensive zone has been absolutely perfect, already scoring three goals in the series. His four points pace the Blue Jackets, along with his 29 minutes of average ice time. Johnson has been a responsible defender down low, hampering the cycle game of the Penguins. He has been paired mostly against the Crosby unit and has done a pretty good job.

For Pittsburgh, everything is running through Paul Martin. The smooth skating defender currently leads the Penguins with six assists and an average ice time of 29 minutes per game. Martin has played well on the power play and the penalty kill, as well as five on five. He and Brooks Orpik lead the Penguins in plus minus at +3 and look comfortable again as a pair. They will be the most heavily relied upon pair going forward.

Key Storylines So Far

Pittsburgh’s forwards have so far been a balanced mix of mediocrity in this series. They have been out hit and handled well around the net. This would be an issue if the Penguins were losing.

Instead, the Penguins have found a way to generate offense without the big guns scoring.

It takes a lot of effort to take Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin out of the play. These two have been very quite in the series, but still have a combined seven assists through three games. It certainly is less than their career playoff average, but nothing to worry to deeply about. Their play has allowed the Penguins to control the puck possession time in each game. Pittsburgh has had the possession battle won at a 55% clip over the course of the series so far, with Crosby and Malkin having possession numbers over 60%. If Crosby and Malkin continue to get shots and dominate possession, the rewards are sure to come.

Chris Kunitz finally made an appearance in game three. He had a beautiful saucer pass that led to a Lee Stempniak game tying goal in the third period. Kunitz is still a minus three in this series and has been short on physicality. The Penguins are hoping that he found some touch on Monday night.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for winger James Neal who has continued to be held off the score sheet. He has registered 16 total shots on net in this series with nothing to show for it. Some of this is because of his selfish play and unwillingness to engage in races for the puck, but others are just because of Bobrovsky’s strong glove hand.

If Neal wants to score, he is going to have to settle for redirects and rebound opportunities. For that to happen Neal is going to have to put in a solid effort around the crease, something he has yet to do in this series.

The Blue Jackets are playing very fast and very physical in this series, however, they are letting this attitude take away from their composure.

In Game number two the Blue Jackets fought back by winning races to pucks and keeping the Penguins occupied with bodies. In game number three the Blue Jackets started to take too many penalties and seemed to force the hitting too much.

As a few Penguins stated in the post game, you can’t hit someone when you have the puck all the time, and this is a truth. The Blue Jackets are trying to force the Penguins into submission, but are losing the possession game. Pittsburgh is taking a beating to make plays and keep the puck moving on their sticks, making Columbus skate and waste their energy.

 Pittsburgh is somehow playing smart veteran hockey, while still appearing as though they are getting their butts kicked. Columbus is actually being too physical, focusing too much on one single aspect of their game. This had led to the Blue Jackets lack of possession time and consequently more penalties.

Game Four Fixes

The Blue Jackets still have a chance to win this series and in order to do so they must find a way to play within themselves. The physical game is working, but it cannot be their entire game. They have to find a way to use the physicality as a tool against the Penguins. If the Jackets can use that to force turnovers and limit possession, they have a very good chance of getting back into this series.

The Penguins, on the other hand, have a chance to really put their foot down in this series. If Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin have a big game offensively, scoring a goal or two, then the Penguins would likely build off of that at home in game five.

The Penguins have scored a total of eleven goals in three games with Neal, Crosby, Malkin, and Kunitz having zero goals. This is a great statistic for the Jackets thus far, but could eventually be their downfall. If these four find a rhythm it is all but over for the upstart Columbus Blue Jackets.

Game Four Prediction

The Penguins had a huge turn in momentum when Brooks Orpik scored his first goal of the playoffs in the dying seconds of game three. The Penguins dominated possession time after this and outshot the Jackets 15-5. The skewed hit total in this series speaks volumes as to how much the Penguins have controlled the puck.

Taking into consideration the Penguins possession time and shot totals, the Penguins look poised to take game four in Columbus. If any of the sleeping giants wake in Columbus, this series can turn rapidly. I expect a 3-2 final score with Evgeni Malkin scoring a power play goal to break his slump.